To prevent another MH17, examine root causes

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By Brahma ChellaneyNikkie Asian Review

Despite the international outrage over its tragic fate, Malaysia Airlines’ MH17 is not the first civilian airliner thought to have been shot down by rebels with an anti-aircraft missile. Nor will it be the last, unless urgent steps are taken internationally to avert another such disaster.

A Buk M-23 air defense missile system is seen on display during an international air show outside Moscow. © Reuters

Next to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the greatest threat to international security and civilian safety is posed by surface-to-air missiles, including the shoulder-fired types known as man-portable air defense systems, or “manpads.” Yet major powers have supplied such missiles to rebel groups in different parts of the world for decades.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are at least 500,000 manpads in state or nonstate hands in more than 100 countries. Estimates of the number of shoulder-fired SAMs in terrorist or rebel hands range up to 150,000. In Afghanistan alone, U.S. forces have secured thousands of such weapons since intervening in 2001.

To be sure, MH17 fell victim to a vicious Russian-U.S. proxy war over Ukraine that has destabilized that country and helped foment a raging civil war there. The MH17 crash, coming on the heels of a new round of American sanctions against Moscow, promises to further escalate this proxy conflict, pitting the U.S. and Russia against each other in a new style of Cold War.

The downing of the passenger plane occurred at a time when the U.S.-backed government in Kiev was waging artillery and air attacks on cities held by pro-Russian separatists. The fighting has created a humanitarian crisis and prompted rebels and the regime to declare rival no-fly zones over parts of eastern Ukraine.

In truth, this was a tragedy waiting to happen. In the absence of direct communication, tracking satellites, air traffic control over rebel-held territory, or the technology to detect a civilian plane’s transponder, it was easy for a ground unit to mistake a civil airliner for a military transport aircraft. A U.S. Federal Aviation Administration notice expressed concern over the potential for misidentification of civilian aircraft over eastern Ukraine, although the institution banned American flights over the area only after the MH17 disaster.

Amid increasingly murky geopolitical issues, the question that needs to be asked is why a number of airlines were still flying over a major battle zone. The rebels had already demonstrated their anti-aircraft capability on July 14, shooting down a Ukrainian military transport plane. That was three days before MH17 went down.

Some carriers, including Korean Airlines, Qantas Airways, Asiana Airlines, and Taiwan’s China Airlines, had stopped using Ukrainian airspace by April. Those that continued to overfly rebel-controlled territory appeared to take their cue from one side in the armed conflict — the Ukrainian government in Kiev — throwing caution to the wind.

There is a much bigger question: Given the proliferation of anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of nonstate actors, how can the world ensure that another commercial jetliner is not shot down? This question assumes greater significance because the MH17 incident shows that the international community has failed to learn from the downing of a number of civilian airliners by rebels in the past.

Today, the focus is rightly on Russia’s alleged role in training and arming separatists in eastern Ukraine with manpads and the more lethal Buk-M2E missile launch platform, which is suspected to have brought down MH17 with a single SA-11 Gadfly missile. The U.S. has taken the lead in holding Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, guilty in the global court of opinion. But Washington has itself armed rebels elsewhere with anti-aircraft weapons that have brought down passenger planes.

Insurgents battling Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s downed three passenger aircraft with U.S.-supplied missiles. The deadliest incident occurred on Sept. 4, 1985, when rebels shot down a Soviet-built Antonov-26 aircraft of Bakhtar Afghan Airlines near Kandahar city with a SAM, killing 52 people. Another 29 people were killed on April 10, 1988, when a rebel-launched missile downed a second Afghan AN-26 passenger jet.

In the third case, an Ariana Afghan Airlines’ McDonnell Douglas DC-10, with about 300 passengers aboard, was struck by an insurgent-fired missile as it was preparing to land in Kabul on Sept. 21, 1984. Although the plane suffered extensive damage, including to two of its three hydraulic systems, it crash-landed with no fatalities.

Before the MH17 tragedy unfolded, U.S. President Barack Obama was seriously considering transferring manpads to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, according to a report in Time magazine. After arming the “moderate” jihadists in Syria with sophisticated TOW anti-tank missiles, the White House hoped that the manpads would be a “game-changer” there, just as the U.S. supply of Stinger missiles to rebels in the 1980s turned the tide of the war against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. To moderate the risks from such transfers, the administration was considering “building obsolescence” into the missiles, and setting a remote “kill switch” to render any missile useless if it were captured by a group linked to al-Qaida.

The MH17 episode, however, makes such transfers politically difficult. The more radical Syrian groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, are already armed with a limited number of manpads, which they secured from other sources, including Libyan militias and perhaps the Saudi and Qatari regimes. This is apparent from the videos they have posted online, including one that purports to show a Syrian government aircraft being shot down with a shoulder-fired SAM.

The main difference between heat-seeking manpads and large, radar-guided, vehicle-based systems such as Buk is that the latter can target aircraft at cruising altitude. Shoulder-fired missile systems have a limited strike range of about 6km, but can be transported and hidden easily. Manpads are among terrorism’s most deadly weapons, capable of bringing down an aircraft that has just taken off or is about to land.

They thus pose a potent threat. Guerrillas have used them with stunning effect, reportedly downing two Boeing 737s in Angola in 1983 and 1984 respectively, and a Congo Airlines Boeing 727 in 1998, killing a total of 171 people. In September 1993, rebels shot down two Tupolev planes of Transair Georgia in two straight days near the city of Sukhumi, Abkhazia, leaving 135 people dead.

In November 2003, the left wing of a DHL cargo Airbus A300 was struck by a missile while departing Baghdad. In another attack, two SA-7 missiles were fired at an Arkia Israeli Airlines Boeing 757 on Nov. 28, 2002, when it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. The rockets, however, missed the aircraft.

Against this background, the MH17 crash has ignited a new debate on how to safeguard civil aircraft from SAMs. Technical options are available, such as installing counter attack technology on aircraft. The U.S. is seeking to draw on existing military technology to develop missile-defense systems for commercial aircraft. Missile countermeasure systems, however, carry a high price tag, estimated at $1 million to $3 million per aircraft, according to a Congressional Research Service report. The weight of such systems, moreover, can potentially decrease an aircraft’s fuel efficiency, adding to operating costs.

A more cost-effective approach to countering missile threats to civil aircraft would be political, focusing on better geopolitics, improved regional security, enhanced safety measures in the vicinity of airports, and modified flight operations and air traffic procedures to minimize risks.

Many of the SAMs that have been used against passenger jets by insurgents or are currently in rebel possession have been supplied by big powers as part of a strategy targeting specific regimes.

Some such missiles have also proliferated among nonstate actors because of various countries’ dysfunctions and a flourishing black market. For example, the enduring chaos and conflict in Libya following the 2011 regime change effected by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has facilitated international trafficking of manpads — including SA-7s, the early Soviet equivalent of American Stingers — from the arsenal built by Moammar Gadhafi’s government.

Currently there is no legal restriction on transferring or trading SAMs between countries or entities, although the Wassenaar Arrangement on export controls for conventional arms and dual-use technologies has strengthened its guidelines on manpads. Clearly, an international treaty is needed to bar states from transferring SAMs to nonstate actors. Such a pact could open the path to concerted international action against the thriving black market in such weapons — and avoid another disaster such as the MH17 tragedy.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a geostrategist and the author, most recently of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

Copyright © 2014 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.

How do we avert a thirsty future?

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Special to The Globe and Mail, July 15, 2014

There is a tongue-in-cheek saying in America – attributed to Mark Twain, who lived through the early phase of the California Water Wars – that “whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” It highlights the consequences, even if somewhat apocryphally, as ever-scarcer water resources create a parched world. California is currently reeling under its worst drought in modern times.

Adequate availability of water, food and energy is critical to global security. Water – the sustainer of life and livelihoods – is already the world’s most exploited natural resource. With nature’s capacity for providing renewable freshwater lagging behind humanity’s current rate of utilization, tomorrow’s water is being used to meet today’s need.

Consequently, the resources of shared rivers, aquifers and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans. Canada, which is the Saudi Arabia of the freshwater world, is fortunate to be blessed with exceptional water wealth. But more than half of the global population lives in conditions of water distress.

The struggle for water is exacerbating effects on the earth’s ecosystems. Groundwater depletion, for its part, is affecting natural stream flows, groundwater-fed wetlands and lakes, and related ecosystems.

If resources like water are degraded and depleted, environmental refugees will follow. Sanaa in Yemen risks becoming the first capital city to run out of water. If Bangladesh bears the main impact of China’s damming of River Brahmaputra, the resulting exodus of thirsty refugees will compound India’s security challenges.

Silent water wars between states, meanwhile, are already being waged in several regions, including by building dams on international rivers and by resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction. Examples include China’s frenetic upstream dam building in its borderlands and downriver Egypt’s threats of military reprisals against the ongoing Ethiopian construction of a large dam on the Blue Nile.

The yearly global economic losses from water shortages are conservatively estimated at $260-billion. Water-stressed South Korea is encouraging its corporate giants to produce water-intensive items — from food to steel — for the home market in overseas lands. But this strategy is creating problems elsewhere. For instance, a South Korean contract to lease as much as half of all arable land in Madagascar — a large Indian Ocean island-nation — triggered a powerful grassroots backlash that toppled the country’s democratically elected president in 2009.

Unlike mineral ores, fossils fuels, and resources from the biosphere such as fish and timber, water (unless bottled) is not a globally traded commodity. But the human population has doubled since 1970 alone, while the global economy has grown even faster.

Lifestyle changes have become a key driver of water stress. In East and Southeast Asia, for example, traditional diets have been transformed in just one generation, becoming much meatier. Meat production is highly water-intensive. If the world stopped diverting food to feed livestock and produce biofuels, it could not only abolish hunger but also feed a four-billion-larger population, according to a University of Minnesota study.

Compounding the diet-change impacts on the global water situation is the increasing body mass index (BMI) of humans in recent decades, with the prevalence of obesity doubling since the 1980s. Obesity rates in important economies now range from 33 per cent in the United States and 26.2 per cent in Canada to 5.7 per cent in China and 1.9 per cent in India. Heavier citizens make heavier demands on natural resources, especially water and energy. A study published in the British journal BMC Public Health found that if the rest of the world had the same average BMI as Americans, it would be equivalent to adding nearly an extra billion people to the global population, with major implications for the world’s water situation.

The future of human civilization hinges on sustainable development, with water at the centre of that challenge. The world can ill-afford to waste time – or water – to find ways to avert a thirsty future.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace and War.

(c) The Globe and Mail, 2014.

Alarm Bells in Asia

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated

Photo of Brahma ChellaneyThe deteriorating situation in Ukraine and rising tensions between Russia and the United States threaten to bury US President Barack Obama’s floundering “pivot” toward Asia – the world’s most vibrant (but also possibly its most combustible) continent. Obama’s tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines will do little to rescue the pivot or put his regional foreign policy on a sound footing.

In fact, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is just the latest reason that the pivot – which has been rebranded as a “rebalancing” – has failed to gain traction. A slew of other factors – including America’s foreign-policy preoccupation with the Muslim world, Obama’s reluctance to challenge an increasingly assertive China, declining US defense outlays, and diminished US leadership on the world stage – were already working against it.

The reality is that rising anxiety among Asian countries about China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy has presented the US with an important opportunity to recapture its central role in the region by strengthening old alliances and building new partnerships. But the US has largely squandered its chance, allowing China to continue to broaden its territorial claims.

Indeed, over the last two years, America’s Asian allies and partners have received three jarring wake-up calls, all of which have delivered the same clear message: the US cannot be relied upon to manage China’s rise effectively.

0020ee8c19dde118eb74caa7b7874fa5.landscapeThe first such signal came in the form of Obama’s silence when China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in July 2012. The move – which established a model for China to annex other disputed territories – occurred despite a US-brokered deal for a mutual withdrawal of Chinese and Philippine vessels from the area. Obama’s apparent indifference to America’s commitment to the Philippines under the 1951 mutual-defense treaty, which it reaffirmed in 2011, encouraged China to seize the Second Thomas Shoal, which is also claimed by the Philippines.

America’s Asian allies received a second wake-up call when China unilaterally established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering territories that it claims (but does not control) in the East China Sea – a dangerous new precedent in international relations. China then demanded that all aircraft transiting the zone – whether headed for Chinese airspace or not – submit flight plans in advance.

Instead of demonstrating its disapproval by postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Beijing, the US government advised commercial airlines to respect China’s self-declared ADIZ. Japan, by contrast, told its carriers to disregard China’s demand – an indication of the growing disconnect in US-Japanese relations.

The third wake-up call comes from Ukraine. The US has responded to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea by distancing itself from the “Budapest Memorandum,” the pact that US President Bill Clinton signed in 1994 committing the US to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal.

The first two wake-up calls highlighted the Obama administration’s unwillingness to do anything that could disrupt its close engagement with China, a country that is now central to US interests. The third was even more ominous: America’s own vital interests must be directly at stake for it to do what is necessary to uphold another country’s territorial integrity – even a country that it has pledged to protect.

The world is witnessing the triumph of brute power in the twenty-first century. Obama was quick to rule out any US military response to Russia’s Crimea takeover. Likewise, as China has stepped up efforts to upend the regional status quo – both territorial and riparian – the US has dithered, doing little to reassure its jittery Asian allies.

Instead, the US has pursued a neutral course, which it hopes will enable it to avoid being dragged into a military confrontation over countries’ conflicting territorial claims. To this end, the US has addressed its calls for restraint not only to China, but also to its own allies.

But America’s own restraint – whether in response to Russia’s forcible absorption of Crimea or to China’s creeping, covert warfare – has brought no benefits to its allies. In fact, its efforts to avoid confrontation at all costs could inadvertently spur game-changing – and potentially destabilizing – geopolitical developments.

Most important, America’s sanctions-driven policy toward Russia is likely to force the Kremlin to initiate its own pivot toward Asia – particularly toward energy-hungry, cash-rich China. At the same time, a showdown with Russia will compel the US to court China more actively. In a new Cold War scenario, China would thus be the big winner, gaining a wide diplomatic berth to pursue its territorial ambitions.

While the US propitiates China, countries like Japan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam are being forced to accept that they will have to contend with Chinese military incursions on their own. That is why they are stepping up efforts to build credible military capabilities.

This trend could lead to the resurgence of militarily independent Asian powers that remain close strategic friends of the US. In this sense, they would be following in the footsteps of two of America’s closest allies – the United Kingdom and France – which have built formidable deterrent capacities, rather than entrust their security to the US. This would be a game-changing development for Asia, the US, and the entire world.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

Read more from “Cold War II?”

Asia’s Fault Lines Stoke Tensions

By Brahma ChellaneyThe Transatlantic Academy

Asia’s Fault Lines Stoke Tensions

Asia’s dramatic economic rise led some analysts to hastily conclude that the relative decline of the West is inevitable. Developments since 2013 highlight that dangerous new fault lines have emerged in Asia, posing a major risk to peace, stability and prosperity in the world’s largest and most populous continent. The developments create a diplomatic opening for the transatlantic alliance to play a more active role in shaping Asia’s trajectory positively.

Asia today is at a defining moment in its history. Yet the international spotlight on its rapid economic ascent has obscured the serious challenges it confronts. These challenges range from recrudescence of territorial and maritime disputes and increasingly fervent nationalism to sharpening competition over natural resources and toxic historical legacies that weigh down its major interstate relationships.

Two fault lines in particular are putting Asia’s sustained rise at risk, with the adverse geopolitical trends carrying significant ramifications for global markets. With Asia’s political integration badly lagging behind its economic integration, one fault line is represented by the widening gap between politics and economics. Asia is the only continent other than Africa where political integration has failed to take off.

The other fault line is represented by the so-called history problem — or how the past threatens to imperil Asia’s present and future. Historical distortions and a failure to come to terms with the past have spurred competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms.

Asian disputes over territories, war memorials, fishing rights, natural resource reserves, and textbooks are linked with history. Yet historical narratives are never free of bias or embellishment. Objective history, after all, is an oxymoron, with historical narratives often embodying cherished national myths. Historians who dare to probe such myths through factbased interrogation can face backlash or even persecution, especially in autocratic states.

Respect for boundaries is a prerequisite to peace and stability on any continent. Europe has built its peace on that principle, with a number of European states learning to live with boundaries that they don’t like. But in Asia, renewed attempts to disturb the territorial status quo are stirring geopolitical tensions and fueling rivalries.

In particular, an increasingly muscular China harps on historical grievances — real or imaginary — to justify its claims to territories and fishing areas long held by others. Whether it is strategic islands in the South and East China Seas or the resource-rich Himalayan Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, China is dangling the threat of force to assert its claims.

The transatlantic relationship, through diplomatic outreach, can help underscore the imperative for Asia to get rid of its baggage of history in order to chart a more stable and prosperous future. After all, the slowing of Asian economic growth only increases the risks from the new fault lines. The risks are also heightened by Asia’s lack of a security framework, with even its regional consultation mechanisms remaining weak.

Unlike Europe’s bloody wars of the first half of the twentieth century, which have made war there unthinkable today, the wars in Asia in the second half of the twentieth century only sharpened rivalries, fostering a bitter legacy. Several interstate wars have been fought in Asia since 1950 — when the Korean War and the annexation of Tibet started — without resolving the underlying disputes.

As we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it is important to remember that Europe was at the time even more integrated by trade and investment than Asia is today, with its royal families interrelated by marriage. Yet Europe’s disparate economic and political paths led to World War I. Asia thus must realize that economic interdependence, amid rising political tensions between its major countries, cannot guarantee peace by itself.

Several Asian sub-regions currently are in flux. Although the U.S. and European role in Asia is viewed by a majority of Asian states as a stabilizing influence, the U.S. remains primarily focused on the Islamic world. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address in January, did not even mention Asia.

Obama’s supposed policy shift toward Asia — once known as a pivot but now rebranded as a rebalance — has always seemed more rhetorical than real. To make the promise of his “pivot” real, Obama has still to convince Congress at home — and America’s Asian allies and partners — that he means to devote more military, diplomatic and economic attention to Asia as well as stand up to China’s territorial creep.

China’s rift with fellow communist state North Korea — increasingly an estranged and embittered ally — opens diplomatic space for the U.S. and Europe to help transform Northeast Asia’s fraught geopolitics. After all, Beijing today risks “losing” North Korea, the way its once-tight hold on Myanmar has slipped dramatically. China’s increasing territorial assertiveness has also strained itsrelations with several other neighbors, stretching from Japan to the Philippines and Vietnam to India.

A growing chasm between China’s assertive, nationalistic president, Xi Jinping, and North Korea’s defiant young dictator, Kim Jong-Un, has thrown the bilateral relationship into a tailspin. The 31-year-old Kim, the world’s youngest head of state, has presented himself as a tough leader who will not allow China to treat North Korea as a vassal state.

Unlike the U.S. opening with Myanmar, which led to Obama’s historic visit to that country in 2012, any American engagement with North Korea would have to center on a deal to denuclearize it. But such a deal will remain elusive as long as Washington depends on Beijing to “soften” Pyongyang. Washington’s reliance on Beijing as a diplomatic intermediary indeed is a sore point with yongyang, which has sought direct engagement with the United States to counteract China’s leverage over it.

More broadly, the resurgent territorial, maritime and history disputes in Asia highlight that securing Asian peace and stability hinges fundamentally on respect for existing borders. Unless that happens, it is far from certain that Asia will be able to spearhead global growth or shape a new world order. America’s neutrality on sovereignty disputes between China and its neighbors, however, could weaken its bilateral security alliances.

This article was originally published in “the State of the Transatlantic World.”
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India Risks Losing Out in a “Contest of Ideas”  

By Brahma Chellaney

The National Bureau of Asian Research

India has watched with unease the Ukraine-related developments that have triggered Europe’s most serious geopolitical crisis since the end of the Cold War. These events threaten to unleash a new Cold War, or at least a renewed East-West ideological struggle. U.S. President Barack Obama’s new sanctions-based approach toward Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea sets the stage for a potential clash between Western democracy and what some U.S. ideologues have described as “Putinism.” Obama himself calls the crisis a “contest of ideas.” The question many are asking is whether this portends the advent of an ominous new era.

Russia has gained little from the annexation of Crimea, which was already under its de facto control. But it has displayed contempt for international law and lost a government in Kiev that had been friendly to Russian interests. Russia also faces sanctions-related costs at a time when its economy is already fragile and its borders remain precarious.

Yet the “contest of ideas” threatens to unhinge Obama’s rebalance toward Asia. Even before the Ukraine crisis began, many wondered whether this policy would acquire concrete strategic content or remain largely a rhetorical repackaging of policies begun under Obama’s predecessor. Now the United States could be forced to focus its attention on the states on Russia’s periphery, increasing the likelihood of a new Cold War. Thus far, Washington’s rebalance to Asia has remained more rhetorical than real, in part because of U.S. foreign policy’s preoccupation with the Middle East. Furthermore, the Obama administration has been reluctant to say or do anything that might raise Beijing’s hackles.

Asian states that rely on the United States as their security guarantor were jolted by Obama’s inaction on the 2012 Chinese capture of Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This development occurred despite a U.S.-brokered deal under which both Beijing and Manila agreed to withdraw their vessels from the area. Obama’s silence on the capture, coupled with his administration’s apathetic attitude to the U.S. commitment to the Philippines under the Mutual Defence Treaty, emboldened China to effectively seize a second Philippine-claimed shoal, the Second Thomas/Ayungin Shoal, without attempting to evict the eight Filipino sailors living there.

Another jolt came when China established an air defense identification zone that usurped international airspace over the East China Sea and extended to Japanese- and South Korean-controlled islands or rocks. Washington refrained from postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s previously scheduled trip to Beijing or otherwise demonstrating its disapproval of the Chinese action beyond verbal statements but advised U.S. commercial airlines to respect the zone. This response conflicted with Japan’s advice to its commercial airlines to ignore China’s demand that they file their flight plans through the zone in advance.

These two events showed that the Obama administration, despite its rebalance toward Asia, will not act in ways detrimental to the United States’ close engagement with China. Washington indeed has declined to take sides in the bilateral disputes between China and its neighbors—unless, of course, U.S. interests are directly at stake, such as in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Obama administration has also charted a course of neutrality on the recrudescence of Sino-Indian and Sino-Japanese territorial disputes.

Against this background, a protracted showdown with Russia over Ukraine would leave even less space for the United States to rebalance toward Asia. However, it will create greater space for China to disturb the territorial status quo in Asia. In a new Cold War setting, it will not be the United States but Russia that would likely pivot toward Asia. A sanctions-centered U.S. policy of selective containment of Russia could compel Moscow to cozy up with China, including to escape containment and to promote energy outflows and capital inflows. This may be particularly true if U.S. sanctions seek to bar Western investments in the Russian energy sector—a move that could prompt Moscow to reverse course and accept Chinese investments in “strategic” fields. Western sanctions against Russia could thus enable Beijing to gain important benefits, including more favorable terms for Russian energy resources and greater access to the Russian market for Chinese goods. Put simply, the only power likely to gain geopolitically from the recent turn of events in Ukraine is China, which remains a revolutionary power bent on upending the status quo in Asia. Its growing geopolitical heft has emboldened its muscle-flexing and territorial nibbling.

In order to isolate Russian president Vladimir Putin, Obama could be tempted to cede more space to Beijing in Asia. China’s geopolitical gains would be further solidified if the U.S. jettisons its post–Cold War policy of seeking to influence Russia’s conduct through engagement and integration. The United States is closing the door to Russian accession to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and effectively ousting Russia from the group of eight (G-8) by making it the group of seven again—an action that can only accelerate that institution’s growing irrelevance in international relations.

India, by contrast, could be a loser in a second Cold War that redivides states along a bipolar axis. India lost out in the first Cold War because of its reluctance to take sides. Although India has progressed from doctrinaire nonalignment to geopolitical pragmatism, it sees itself as a bridge between the East and the West, not as a partisan. In the Ukraine crisis, New Delhi has treaded cautiously, supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity but opposing sanctions on Russia. If a new Cold War is to be averted, a diplomatic solution must both protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and respect Russia’s legitimate security interests. Ukraine should remain neutral between the East and the West—a sovereign buffer between NATO and Russia. India could help broker such a solution, which, while ensuring European peace, would also contribute to Asian security.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. His latest book is Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (2013).

This is one of five essays in the roundtable “Asia-Pacific Perspectives on the Ukraine Crisis.” Download all five essays in PDF format or access them online below.

1. Crimea: A Silver Lining for the United States’ Asian Allies? By Rory Medcalf

2. India Risks Losing Out in a “Contest of Ideas” By Brahma Chellaney

3. Taiwan Is No Crimea, But… By Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang

4. Japan’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace” and the Annexation of Crimea By Tetsuo Kotani

5. The Korean Angle on Crimean Fallout: America’s Perception Gap By Seong-hyon Lee

© 2014 The National Bureau of Asian Research

International law under siege

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The powerful cite international law to weaker states but blithely ignore it when it comes in their way.

Brahma Chellaney, Mint, April 22, 2014

The Russian-U.S. proxy war over Ukraine, while threatening to unleash a new cold war, serves as a reminder that power usually trumps international law. Russia’s muscular riposte, including annexing Crimea, to the U.S.-supported putsch in Kiev that deposed Ukraine’s constitutional order highlights major powers’ unilateralist approach to international law.

Anarchy-in-pakistan2The only mechanism to enforce international law is the UN Security Council (UNSC), whose permanent members are notorious for breaking international law. Is it thus any surprise that international law is applied only when it suits the interests of the strong states? The powerful cite international law to weaker states but blithely ignore it when it comes in their way.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s action in annexing Crimea violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity, even though it followed a referendum in that historically Russian region, where the majority of residents are indisputably with Russia. The annexation represents a clear breach of international law.

This, however, cannot obscure the fact that the U.S. and NATO have repeatedly shown contempt for international law.  The list is long just for the past 15 years — the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UNSC mandate, the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime through aerial bombardment, the aiding of a still-raging bloody insurrection in Syria, and renditions and torture of terror suspects. The U.S. National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance programme mocks international law.

In February, Washington openly backed the violent street protesters — some armed with guns and Molotov cocktails — who toppled Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych. This has set a dangerous precedent. No democracy can be safe if armed provocateurs are allowed to spearhead street protests against the constitutional authority.

The Ukraine case indeed illustrates the international law of convenience. Putin, for example, has cynically justified his Crimea takeover in the name of “responsibility to protect,” the very moral (not legal) principle U.S. President Barack Obama invoked to rationalize Gaddafi’s overthrow.

The Ukraine crisis is actually a geopolitical windfall for another power that serves as a prime example of a unilateralist approach to international relations — China, still hewing to Mao Zedong’s belief that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” China’s growing geopolitical heft has emboldened its muscle-flexing and territorial nibbling in Asia. China rejects some of the same treaties the U.S. declines to join, including the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses — the first law that lays down rules on the shared resources of transnational rivers, lakes and aquifers.

China has established a hydro-supremacy unparalleled in the world by annexing the starting places of Asia’s major international rivers — the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang — and working to reengineer their cross-border flows. Yet China — the source of transboundary-river flows to more countries than any other hydro-hegemon — rejects the very concept of water sharing and refuses to enter into water treaties with its neighbours.

With both Obama and Putin now wooing China, the likely big winner from the turn of events is the country that has been relentlessly expanding its borders ever since it came under Communist rule in 1949. That China continues to press steadily outward on its borders was illustrated by its 2012 capture of the Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and by its more recent establishment of an air-defence zone extending to islands controlled by Japan and South Korea.

China’s geopolitical gains will solidify if the U.S. jettisons — as appears likely — its post-Cold War policy of seeking to influence Russia’s conduct through engagement and integration. The U.S. is closing the door to Russian accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and effectively ousting Russia from the G8 by making it the G7 again — an action that can only accelerate that institution’s creeping irrelevance in international relations.

India, by contrast, could be a loser in a second cold war that re-divides states along a bipolar axis. India also lost out in the first cold war because of its reluctance to take sides. Although India has progressed from doctrinaire nonalignment to geopolitical pragmatism, it sees itself as a bridge between East and West, not as a partisan.

Given the innately self-calculating and self-aggrandizing human nature, strong nations have always sought to gain dominance over the weak. The advent of new technologies and reduced transportation costs has made the world increasingly interdependent. Yet the world has remained the same in one aspect — the stronger still dominate the weaker.

When the U.S. lost a 1984 International Court of Justice case filed by Nicaragua, it blocked the ruling’s implementation. But when Japan recently lost its Antarctic whaling case, it quickly agreed to comply with the ruling. This illustrates the difference between a big and a not-so-big power.

Power respects strength, while the weak remain meek. Had Crimea been seized by a smaller power, the U.S. by now would have assembled a “coalition of the willing” to launch a military attack on the occupier. But because the occupier in this case is a country armed with intercontinental-range nuclear weapons, Obama, despite his tough talk, quickly ruled out any U.S. military involvement.

The major powers assert one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other states, as if international law were only for the weak.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research.

(c) Mint, 2014.

Can New Water Discoveries Save East Africa?

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East Africa sees almost year-round skirmishes over water and grazing rights among the pastoral groups that live along the Ethiopia-Kenya and South Sudan–Central African Republic borders.

By Brahma Chellaney, Foreign Affairs, April (2014)

Water scarcity is becoming the defining international crisis of the twenty-first century. Water conflicts rage across the world as communities struggle to secure clean, reliable supply One of the world’s most water-stressed regions is East Africa.  Overexploitation of water resources there has been compounded by declining snowpacks on Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, which have shrunk since the late 1980s due to global warming.  Meanwhile, Lake Turkana — the world’s largest perennial desert lake — has largely disappeared from Ethiopian territory, retreating south into Kenya.

chellaney_quenchingkenya

An armed Turkana man walks towards the shores of Lake Turkana, October 12, 2013. (Siegfried Modola / Courtesy Reuters)

In this light, the discovery of two significant aquifers in the largely arid Kenya by a Japanese-financed UNESCO project has been hailed as a potential game changer. The first, the Lotikipi Basin Aquifer, is situated just west of Lake Turkana. The second, the smaller Lodwar Basin Aquifer, is near Lodwar, the capital of Turkana county. The aquifers were discovered by a French firm, Radar Technologies International (RTI), using a space-based exploration technology called WATEX that was originally designed to reveal mineral deposits. The company blended satellite and radar imagery with geographical surveys and seismic data to detect moisture. Subsequent drilling by UNESCO confirmed the presence of aquifers. Three other suspected aquifers in the region have yet to be confirmed through drilling.

For parched and economically backward Turkana, more than one-third of whose residents are malnourished, the discovery of major groundwater reserves is a godsend. Not only will they provide lifesaving water, they will spur agricultural and hydrocarbon development and improve the lives of the impoverished residents in this conflict-ridden region, which extends from Kenya into the borderlands of Ethiopia and South Sudan. Turkana boasts hydrocarbon deposits.

Since the new water can be piped to other regions as well, the aquifer finds are good news for Kenya as a whole. Whereas global per-capita freshwater availability averages slightly above 6,000 cubic meters per year, in Kenya it has fallen well below the international water-poverty threshold of 1,000 cubic meters. Two-fifths of the country’s population thus lacks access to safe drinking water. In addition, more than half do not have adequate sanitation, and water scarcity acts as a serious constraint on socioeconomic development and environmental protection.

The water problem, of course, extends beyond Kenya’s borders, as highlighted by the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa wrought by prolonged drought and erratic rain patterns. Internal conflicts have exacerbated water and food crises. For example, with political conflict disrupting South Sudan fragile, agriculture-based economy, the country faces the specter of Africa’s worst starvation since the 1980s. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently warned of increased drought stress in the parched regions of Africa, such as East Africa.

East Africa sees almost year-round skirmishes over water and grazing rights among the pastoral groups that live along the Ethiopia-Kenya border and the South Sudan-Central African Republic border. As freshwater bodies dry up or recede, pastoralists have to search more widely for water and grazing land, bringing them in conflict with other herdsmen doing the same. Lake Turkana, for example, has progressively retreated from Ethiopia, and Ethiopian Dassanech tribes have moved further south with the water’s edge into Kenyan Turkana territory. In recent years, anger and frustration between the two groups has boiled over into recurrent armed clashes, aggravating military tensions between Kenya and Ethiopia.

More broadly, regional tensions between tribes and ethnic groups have been exacerbated by the hundreds of thousands of water refugees who have streamed across provincial and international frontiers since 2011 alone. For example, a severe drought and famine in 2011 forced tens of thousands to flee southern Somalia for Kenya and Ethiopia, where many still remain camped. In recent months, more than a quarter million South Sudanese have fled to neighboring countries and 30,000 Turkana pastoralists have taken their cattle to Uganda. The flow of thirsty refugees has stoked political and tribal tensions, and put a strain on their host governments.

The region is producing not only parched refugees, who seek to relocate far from their native villages, but also water warriors. Criminal gangs and warlords control many wells. Their guards have opened fire on thirsty villagers for trying to withdraw water. The use of such tactics in water-scarce areas means that the weakest and the poorest are the worst hit.

Against this grim reality, the aquifer finds in northern Kenya seem like a beacon of hope. The firm RTI estimates that its largest discovery — the Lotikipi aquifer — holds at least 250 billion cubic meters of water, which is equivalent in volume to Lake Turkana’s current capacity. It also contends that the aquifer has an impressive annual recharge rate of 3.4 billion cubic meters, which is the amount of water naturally replenished by rain and thus open to sustainable human extraction.

However, finding this hidden water wealth is just the first step. Only a detailed scientific study can reliably determine both the quantity and quality of the water underground. An independent study will also be needed to determine the real replenishment rate, a critical piece of information if Kenya is to sustainably exploit its new groundwater reserves. Reckless extraction could leave little water for future generations.

Further, even if RTI’s estimates are validated by further study, Lotikipi’s reserves are not as large as media reports (which routinely use adjectives such as “huge” and “massive”) have made them out to be. The estimated total reserves can meet the needs of the Turkana region’s residents for no more than 70 years. And the RTI-assessed recharge rate is equivalent to about two times the yearly water use of a large city such as Chicago or London. But there are 43 million people in Kenya, including about a million in Turkana, currently battling a year-long drought. In comparison to Lotikipi’s supposed reserves of 250 billion cubic meters, North Africa’s mammoth Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System — shared by Chad, Libya, Sudan, and Egypt — holds as much as 540,000 billion cubic meters, although the extractable quantity is estimated to be about 15,340 billion cubic meters.

Lotikipi’s reserves thus need to be exploited judiciously — an onerous challenge in a drought-ravaged region. The water must be used to douse the resource wars in Turkana. Developing agriculture in the region — which is currently nonexistent — and employing people to work on new farms could also help. Yet given the raging conflicts in the region, building the infrastructure to tap Lotikipi’s resources and then safeguard it will be no easy task.

One concern is that the real beneficiaries of the aquifer finds may not be the residents of Turkana, Kenya’s least-developed region, but the better-off Kenyans to the south. To prevent that, Kenya needs better governance and more equitable regional development.  Otherwise, it could breed internal conflict as has happened in some resource-rich regions of Africa. The continent has more recently become the scene of a resource-related Great Game among world powers seeking to extract resources in mineral-rich areas.

With the aquifer finds, Turkana now boasts both water and oil resources. Yet the challenges in this backwater mirror the larger challenges in Africa — how to prudently manage water and mineral resources and integrate them with development so that local communities, not outsiders, actually benefit.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY is a geostrategist and the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) and Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press), which won the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Book Award.

(c) Foreign Affairs, 2014.

Why the U.S. must cut Afghanistan loose

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY

Special to The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace and War.

Afghanistan’s presidential election, now apparently headed for a runoff stage, will mark the first peaceful transition of power in the history of that unfortunate country, ravaged by endless war since 1979. Displaying courage in the face of adversity, Afghans braved Taliban attacks and threats to vote in large numbers on April 5.

After almost 35 years of bloodletting, Afghans are desperate for peace. President Hamid Karzai’s successor will have his work cut out for him, including promoting national reconciliation by building bridges among the country’s disparate ethnic and political groups; strengthening the fledgling, multiethnic national army; and ensuring free and fair parliamentary elections next year.

The role of external players, however, overshadows these internal dynamics. Two external factors will significantly influence Afghanistan’s political and security transition: the likely post-2014 role of U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces; and interference by Pakistan, which still harbours militant sanctuaries and the command-and-control structure for Afghan insurgency.

Pakistani interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs can only be made to stop if U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration finally makes that a condition for continuing its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan – a remote prospect.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has made a U-turn on the U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan and is now seeking bases there for a virtually unlimited period. He had declared in Cairo in 2009, “We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there.” But in a change of heart, he now wants bases there to house a fairly sizable U.S.-led NATO force armed with the authority to “conduct combat operations.”

The U.S. President is under political attack at home for having failed to persuade Mr. Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement, which is to provide the legal basis for keeping U.S. bases. The fact that the U.S. left no residual forces in Iraq when it ended its decade-long occupation of that country has made the appeal particularly strong to maintain bases in Afghanistan, where America is seeking to terminate the longest war in its history.

Although Kabul and Washington have finalized the terms of the bilateral agreement, Mr. Karzai withstood intense U.S. pressure to sign, leaving that critical decision to his successor. In truth, Mr. Karzai was afraid that if he did, he could go down in Afghan history as the second Shah Shuja. A puppet ruler installed by the British in 1839, Shah Shuja was deposed and assassinated three years later, but not before precipitating the First Anglo-Afghan War.

4_142014_b4-chell-toy-soldie8201_s640x539Mr. Obama now has little choice but to wait and try to persuade the next Afghan president to sign the accord. He has not, however, grasped the main reason why his county’s war has foundered – failure to reconcile military and political objectives. From the time it invaded in 2001, America pursued a military surge in Afghanistan, but an aid surge to the next-door country harbouring terrorist havens and the “Quetta Shura,” as the Afghan Taliban leadership there is known. The war was made unwinnable by Washington’s own refusal to target Pakistan for actively abetting elements killing or maiming U.S. troops.

Terrorism and insurgency have never been defeated in any country without choking transboundary sustenance and support. Afghans have borne the brunt from two fronts – U.S. military intervention and Pakistan’s use of surrogate militias.

Mr. Obama’s basing strategy could presage a shift from a full-fledged war to a low-intensity war, but without fixing the incongruous duality in American policy. Indeed, a smaller U.S. force in Afghanistan would only increase Washington’s imperative to mollycoddle Pakistani generals and cut a deal with the Quetta Shura in order to secure its bases.

Washington plans to gift Pakistan its surplus military hardware in Afghanistan, including several hundred mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. It has also agreed to taper off drone strikes in Pakistan.

Even more revealing is what the drones have not targeted. To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. has not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against its leadership, which is ensconced in Pakistan’s sprawling Baluchistan province. U.S. drone strikes have been restricted to the Pakistani tribal region to the north, Waziristan, where they have targeted the Pakistani Taliban – the nemesis of the Pakistani military.

To make matters worse, the U.S. plans to start significantly cutting aid to Kabul beginning next year, which threatens to undermine Afghan security forces, a key part of keeping the Afghan Taliban at bay.

Last May, Mr. Obama recalled the warning of James Madison, America’s fourth president: that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Yet he now seeks a long-term military engagement in Afghanistan, which is good news for the Pakistani generals but not for U.S., Afghan or regional interests.

Admittedly, there are no good options. But an indefinite role for foreign forces would be the equivalent of administering the same medicine that has seriously worsened the patient’s condition.

It is past time for Afghanistan to be in charge of its own security and destiny. Outside assistance should be limited to strengthening the Kabul government’s hand.

The coming era of water wars

Upstream hydro-hegemony threatens to trigger downstream upheaval

By Brahma Chellaney, The Washington Times

3_132014_b4-chell-gun-faucet8201_s640x785There is a tongue-in-cheek saying in America — attributed to Mark Twain, who lived through the early phase of the California water wars — that “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”

It highlights the consequences, even if somewhat apocryphally, as ever-scarcer water resources create a parched world. California currently is suffering under its worst drought of the modern era.

Adequate availability of water, food and energy is critical to global security. Water, the sustainer of life and livelihoods, is already the world’s most exploited natural resource.

With nature’s freshwater renewable capacity lagging behind humanity’s current rate of utilization, tomorrow’s water is being used to meet today’s need.

Consequently, the resources of shared rivers, aquifers and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans. Securing a larger portion of the shared water has fostered increasing competition between countries and provinces.

Efforts by some countries to turn transnational water resources into an instrument of power has encouraged a dam-building race and prompted growing calls for the United Nations to make water a key security concern.

More ominously, the struggle for water is exacerbating impacts on the earth’s ecosystems. Humanity is altering freshwater and other ecosystems more rapidly than its own scientific understanding of the implications of such change.

Degradation of water resources has resulted in aquatic ecosystems losing half of their biodiversity since just the mid-1970s. Groundwater depletion, for its part, is affecting natural streamflows, groundwater-fed wetlands and lakes, and related ecosystems.

The future of human civilization hinges on sustainable development. If resources like water are degraded and depleted, environmental refugees will follow.

Sanaa in Yemen risks becoming the first capital city to run out of water. If Bangladesh bears the main impact of China’s damming of River Brahmaputra, the resulting exodus of thirsty refugees will compound India’s security challenges.

Internal resource conflicts are often camouflaged as civil wars. Sudan’s Darfur conflict, for example, arose from water and grassland scarcity.

Interstate water wars in a political and economic sense are being waged in several regions, including by building dams on international rivers and by resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction.

Examples include China’s frenetic upstream dam building in its borderlands, and downriver Egypt’s threats of military reprisals against the ongoing Ethiopian construction of a large dam on the Blue Nile.

Upstream Turkey, inspired by China’s strengthening hydro-hegemony, is accelerating its diversion of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This will exacerbate water stress in the two violence-torn, downriver states of Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Israel, with its control of the water-rich Golan Heights and the West Bank aquifers, has leveraged its role as water supplier to Palestinians and Jordanians.

The yearly global economic losses from water shortages are conservatively estimated at $260 billion.

Water-stressed South Korea is encouraging its corporate giants to produce water-intensive items — from food to steel — for the home market in overseas lands. This strategy has created a grass-roots backlash against South Korean firms in Madagascar and India’s Odisha state.

A report reflecting the joint judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies has warned that the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism would become more likely in the next decade.

Water is a renewable but finite resource. Unlike mineral ores, fossils fuels and resources from the biosphere such as fish and timber, water (unless bottled) is not a globally traded commodity. The human population has doubled since 1970 alone, though, while the global economy has grown even faster.

Consumption growth, however, is the single biggest driver of water stress. Rising incomes, for example, have promoted changing diets, especially a greater intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water-intensive.

In China, South Korea and Southeast Asia, traditional diets have been transformed in the past generation alone, becoming much meatier.

If the world stopped diverting food to feed livestock and produce biofuels, it could not only abolish hunger, but also feed a population larger by four billion, according to a University of Minnesota study.

Compounding the diet-change impacts on the global water situation is the increasing body-mass index of humans in recent decades, with the prevalence of obesity doubling since the 1980s.

Obesity rates in important economies now range from 33 percent in the United States and 26.9 percent in Britain to 5.7 percent in China and 1.9 percent in India.

Heavier citizens make heavier demands on natural resources, especially water and energy. They also cause much greater greenhouse-gas emissions through their bigger food and transport needs.

A study published in the British journal BMC Public Health found that if the rest of the world had the same average body-mass index as the United States, it would be equivalent to adding nearly an extra billion people to the global population, with major implications for the world’s water situation.

The issue thus isn’t just about how many mouths there are to feed, but also about how much excess body fat there is on the planet.

The point to note is that a net population increase usually translates into greater human capital to create innovations, power economic growth and support the elderly, but a net increase in body weight only contributes to state liability and greater water stress.

Preventing water wars demands rules-based cooperation, water-sharing and dispute-settlement mechanisms.

However, most of the world’s transnational basins lack any cooperative arrangement, and there is still no international water law in force. Worse, unilateralist appropriation of shared water resources is endemic where autocrats rule.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

© Washington Times, 2014

International law only applies when it suits the strong

Brahma Chellaney, The National

PointThe looming cold war triggered by the US-supported putsch in Kiev that deposed Ukraine’s constitutional order and by Russia’s muscular riposte, including annexing Crimea, underscores the major powers’ unilateralist approach to international law.

A just, rules-based global order has long been touted by powerful states as essential for international peace and security. Yet there is a long history of world powers flouting international law while using it against other states.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s action in annexing Crimea violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity, even though it followed a referendum in that historically Russian region, where the majority of residents indisputably lean toward Russia. The annexation represents a flagrant breach of international law.

This, however, cannot obscure the fact that the US and Nato have repeatedly shown contempt for international law. There’s a long list just for the past 15 years – the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UN Security Council mandates, the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime through aerial bombardment, the aiding of a still-raging bloody insurrection in Syria, and renditions and torture of terror suspects. The US has refused to join a host of critical international treaties – ranging from the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to the 1998 International Criminal Court Statute. Even its National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance policy mocks international law.

In this light, is it any surprise that the US’s moral authority and international standing have eroded?

Washington openly backed the violent street protesters who in February toppled Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovich. This has set a dangerous precedent. No democracy can be safe if armed men are allowed to spearhead street protests against the constitutional authority.

The Ukraine case illustrates the international law of convenience. Mr Putin has cynically justified his action in the name of his “responsibility to protect”, the very moral (not legal) principle US president Barack Obama invoked to rationalise Qaddafi’s overthrow.

To be sure, the Ukraine crisis is rooted in Nato expansion and US-led moves to take Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence. After Nato’s 1949 birth, its first secretary general, Lord Ismay, admitted the organisation’s purpose was to keep “the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. Now Nato’s sole aim is to stay relevant in spite of the Cold War’s end, even if that means playing up the Russian threat.

The new developments are actually a geopolitical windfall for another power that serves as a prime example of a unilateralist approach to international relations – China, which still hews to Mao Zedong’s belief that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun”.

China’s growing geopolitical heft has emboldened its muscle-flexing and territorial nibbling in Asia. China rejects some of the same treaties the US has declined to join, including the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which lays down rules on the shared resources of transnational rivers, lakes and aquifers.

China has established a hydro-supremacy unparalleled in the world by annexing the starting places of Asia’s major international rivers – the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang – and working to reengineer their cross-border flows. Yet China – the source of transboundary river flows to more countries than any other hydro-hegemon – rejects the concept of water sharing and refuses to enter into any treaties.

China remains territorially a revolutionary power bent on upending the status quo in Asia. Yet, with both Mr Obama and Mr Putin actively seeking to woo China, the likely big winner from the turn of events is the country that has been expanding its borders ever since it came under Communist rule in 1949. That China continues to press steadily outward was illustrated by its recent establishment of an air-defence zone extending to islands controlled by Japan and South Korea.

China’s geopolitical gains will solidify if the US jettisons – as appears likely – its post-Cold War policy of seeking to influence Russia’s conduct through engagement and integration. The US is closing the door to Russian accession to the OECD and effectively ousting Russia from the G8 by making it the G7 again – an action that can only accelerate that institution’s crawling irrelevance in international relations.

Punishing Moscow risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that promotes the re-emergence of a czarist Russia and segregates states along a new bipolar axis.

Given the innately self-calculating and self-aggrandising human nature, strong nations have always sought to gain dominance over the weak. New technologies and reduced transport costs have made the world increasingly interdependent and generated many new treaties and rules. Yet the more the world has changed, the more it has remained the same in one aspect – the strong still dominate the weak.

While the weak remain meek, power respects strength. Had Crimea been seized by a smaller power, the US by now would have assembled a “coalition of the willing” to launch a military attack on the occupier. But because the occupier in this case is a country armed with nuclear weapons, Mr Obama has ruled out any US military involvement.

The major powers assert one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other states, as if international law were only for the weak.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author

(c) The National, 2014.